Dressing a Spy in Plain Sight and Many Robert Downey Jrs. in “The Sympathizer”

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer Prize and was subsequently adapted into a miniseries by showrunners Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, a historical black comedy now airing on HBO. The show follows the journey of the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a communist operative working as a mole in South Vietnam’s army who winds up fleeing to the U.S. alongside the General (Toan Le) he putatively works for. Ultimately landing in California, the Captain remains embedded in a South Vietnamese refugee community whom he monitors and reports on to the Viet Cong.

Hoa Xuande in “The Sympathizer.” Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

As a spy hiding in plain sight, the Captain interacts with a few different Americans in an official capacity, almost all of whom are played by Robert Downey Jr. In Vietnam, he works alongside a CIA operative, Claude. In the U.S., he encounters a deceptively welcoming California congressman, Ned Godwin, and winds up working on a film set for Niko Damianos, a bearded 1970s auteur. Costume designer Danny Glicker (The Whale, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), dressed Downey Jr.’s different characters to appear distinct, but with a similar soul. “The visual idea was no matter how a person presents themselves to the Captain, all these characters played by RDJ, whether they’re conservative or liberal, whether they seem progressive or a little bit stuck in the past, they’re always the same person. He always hits the exact same wall,” Glicker said.


While Glicker’s approach to Downey Jr.’s different roles was to dress them in a heightened, “gonzo” but still historically accurate version of what the protocols of their different positions in life would require, for the Captain, what mattered most was his ability to quietly navigate different environments, which he does in muted, preppy style. “Its a highly calculated form of presentation because it’s a way of expressing himself that allows for genteel respectability, effortless mobility, and communicates a really important idea, which is the academic class within the American social class, which, of course, is ultimately a training ground for the Western hierarchy of politics and social infrastructure,” Glicker said. Half-French, half-Vietnamese, and a U.S. college graduate, the Captain’s quietly presentable wardrobe references his 1960s academic career. “This look, which appears so kind and calm and safe and gentle, is actually this very calculated aesthetic that the Captain has assembled, which makes him seem trustworthy, bookish, conservative, and reliable,” the costume designer explained. 

Hoa Xuande and Roberty Downey Jr. Photograph by Beth Dubber/HBO
Robert Downey Jr. in “The Sympathizer.” Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

For the Captain and Downey Jr.’s different characters, Glicker initially looked to a few historical figures. Among the Captain’s bookish looks, “there was a little bit of Steve McQueen and Ryan O’Neal thrown in there. The idea was these were iconic aesthetics, iconic silhouettes that inspired both trust, but also, in the case of McQueen, a little danger, and in the case of Ryan O’Neal, a little romanticism,” he said. In the case of CIA agent Claude, Glicker expanded on silhouettes out of Graham Greene. “It was incredibly fun for me to think a lot about the opposite of how you would imagine a CIA agent to be. This is not a guy who’s disappearing,” the costume designer aid of Claude, who presents himself as a tourist in vibrant, vacation-ready clothing. “But there’s a real darkness to it because he is deeply embedded in some truly miserable activities. He’s walking into an interrogation wearing a peach Guayabera shirt, and it’s a horrifying image.”

Sandra Oh. Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

Similarly, the dangerous, savvy congressman the Captain encounters in the U.S. wears lighter colors than you’d expect from someone working in Washington. “I wanted to play with the sinister idealism of California-based politics because in the 70s, the country was definitely moving toward deeply influential politicians from California,” Glicker said. Through the congressman’s deceptive dress, he also has the audience wrestle with the same issues the Captain faces — the juxtaposition of California’s surface-level brightness and cheer with the darkness contained in the people he meets there.

Robert Downey Jr. Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

Given the show’s stunts, blood, military uniforms, and several characters played by Downey Jr. who all appear together in one scene, as well as the fact that a lot of clothing original to the 1970s is falling apart, The Sympathizer entailed an enormous amount of building, which Glicker accomplished alongside a team of fiber technicians, whom he credited with “making things look well-loved and giving them a story.” For the period setting, the costume designer aimed to be as truthful as possible. “I think the thing that I wanted to remind everyone was how earthy the world was then. It’s not just crisp, hilarious polyesters,” he said. For the Captain’s friend Bon, for example, he was inspired by the Asian American protests of the 70s. “You begin to understand that the humanity that is within those clothes is something that is born of struggle or complexity.”

Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan. Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

The series begins in 1975, but many of the clothes on screen come from earlier eras. “A lot of our refugees, when they arrive to the United States, are people who have cultivated beautiful tastes but are still wearing the clothes given to them,” Glicker said. Moving on from these items became a part of their personal and visual journey. Among his favorite characters to dress was Lana, the General’s daughter. “That was one of the more touching things because we were spending so much time in this very dark story of people who are going into a system that was rigged against them, and Lana was this bright spot, someone who was moving through it and doing very well at it,” Glicker said. At first, Lana is almost intentionally invisible, but she comes into her own as a character in the Captain’s orbit, trying to forge her way in a new country. “I wanted to really express the experience of people who come to the United States with limited resources, but not limited imagination or limited taste,” Glicker said, which is just what Lana’s slowly unfolding visibility communicates.

Toan Le, Vy Le. Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO.
Vy Le. Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO



 Featured image: Robert Downey Jr., Hoa Xuande. Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.